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May 13, 2015 6:46 AM

Another boat with 500 Rohingya, Bangladeshis nears Malaysia

The Associated Press

LANGKAWI, Malaysia (AP) A boat crammed with more than 500 refugees was found on Wednesday off the coast of Penang island in Malaysia, the latest evidence that thousands of Bangladeshis and Rohingya minority are desperately trying to reach land after being abandoned by their human traffickers.

The overcrowded boat is full of people, and there is no information if they will be allowed to come on shore, said Zafar Ahmad, who heads the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization of Malaysia.

"We are hearing that their plight is desperate but we are unsure what the fate of the boat is. We urge the Malaysian government to give these Rohingya refugees protection and shelter," he told The Associated Press.

The information was corroborated by another person with knowledge of the situation. The person spoke on condition of anonymity and is not authorized to speak to the media.

Government officials did not immediately answer phones when reached for comment.

Abandoned at sea, boatloads of hungry men, women and children Bangladeshis and Rohingya, members of Myanmar's long-persecuted Muslim-minority, appear to have no place to go after Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia refused to give them refuge.

"We won't let any foreign boats come in," Tan Kok Kwee, first admiral of Malaysia's maritime enforcement agency, said Tuesday. He said Malaysia will help if the boats are not seaworthy and are sinking, otherwise the the navy will provide "provisions and send them away."

Hours earlier, Indonesia pushed back a boat packed with hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, saying they were given food, water and directions to Malaysia their original destination.

The refugees are victims of human traffickers who promise them safe passage from their countries to Malaysia. But in recent weeks the smugglers have fled wooden trawlers carrying the refugees for fear of being caught in a massive regional crackdown on human trafficking syndicates. In the process, they have abandoned their human cargo and set them adrift in the sea off Malaysia and Indonesia without food or fuel, and themselves escaped in speedboats.

Some estimates put the number of refugees stuck in the Malacca Strait and nearby waters at s 6,000, some stranded for more than two months. Activists believe many more boats will try to reach land in the coming days and weeks.

Already, about 1,600 migrants have landed on shore in Langkawi and neighboring Indonesia, the two Muslim-majority countries that over the years have shown the most sympathy for Rohingya's plight.

The United Nations pleaded for countries in the region to keep their borders open and help rescue those stranded, while some parliamentarians slammed the "not-in my-back-yard" attitude.

In one of the most striking examples of the refugees' plight, Chris Lewa, a human rights activist, contacted a person on board one boat several kilometers (miles) off Langkawi Island by mobile phone that carried a Thai number and was kept charged by the vessel's power supply.

The person said they had been four days without food or water and reported seeing a patrol boat with flashing lights approach late Tuesday, and then slowly pass them by.

Lewa, director of the nonprofit Arakan Project, was still talking to that man when the boat passed by. She told the AP that she heard on the phone the refugees' first hopeful cheers turn into sobs and screams.

Labeled by the U.N. one of the world's most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Denied citizenship by national law, the Muslims are effectively stateless. Access to education and adequate health care is limited and freedom of movement severely restricted.

In the last three years, attacks on Rohingya have left 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others into crowded camps just outside Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine state, where they live under abysmal, apartheid-like conditions, with little or no opportunities for work.

That has sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people the region has seen since the Vietnam War, with an estimated 100,000 men, women and children boarding ships in search of better lives in other countries since June 2012, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

The first stop, up until recently, was Thailand, where migrants were held in jungle camps until their families could raise hefty ransoms so they could continue onward, usually to Malaysia. Recent crackdowns, however, have forced the smugglers to change tactics instead holding people on small and large ships parked offshore until they collected about $2,000 per person.

Struggling to put a positive face on its dismal human trafficking record, Thai authorities have discovered more than 70 former camps near the border with Malaysia, the biggest of which was found Tuesday. It appeared to be newly abandoned, well-constructed and able to house as many as 800 people, said Lt. Gen. Prakarn Chonlayuth, the southern regional army commander.

Dozens of graves also have been excavated, the victims believed to be Rohingya or Bangladeshi.

A group of Southeast Asian parliamentarians released a statement calling the refusal to accept the refugees "inhumane."

"Towing migrants out to sea and declaring that they aren't your problem anymore is not a solution to the wider regional crisis," said Charles Santiago, a member of parliament in Malaysia. "Any solution must include securing binding commitments from Myanmar to end the persecution of Rohingya that is fueling their exodus."

Several navies were called upon to carry out search and rescue operations.

Capt. Chayut Navespootikorn of the Royal Thai Navy of Operation Fleet Area 3, said several boats and aircraft had been deployed to scour his country's territorial waters, but nothing has turned up. He said his fleet was back out there looking Wednesday.


Associated Press writers Robin McDowell in Yangon, Myanmar, Margie Mason in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.


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